Contemplating US Policy on China and the Indo-Pacific: Some Thoughts regarding a Possible Biden Administration
By most accounts, the last four years have been something of a sea change in US foreign policy. During this time, the US has stepped back from its familiar leadership role in several multilateral initiatives, cast aspersions at global governance efforts, flirted with dictators and authoritarian regimes more openly and brazenly than ever in the past, and pursued hawkish policies and postures that have contributed to the freefall in Sino-US relations. Not since the 1992 election, which conveyed Bill Clinton into power in the first election of the post-Cold War era, have US presidential election campaigns taken place against the backdrop of such dramatic systemic change.
As the US enters the home stretch of electioneering for the present 2020 campaign, there has been much speculation and punditry on the future of America’s place in the world, even if foreign policy issues themselves are not actually featuring prominently in the hustings, with the possible exception of China. Needless to say, should the incumbent Donald Trump secure a second term, American foreign policy will remain on its present course. After all, Trump is campaigning without an election manifesto, virtually the first time this has happened in Republican Party history. This obviously suggests that the president and his policy inner circle are content with their current approach. Conversely, the prospect of a new president usually occasions a greater degree of speculation and anticipation: be it regarding priority issues and regions, the composition of the new foreign policy team, or personal dynamics between the new president and his/her counterparts.
Bearing these observations in mind, this article contemplates what Asia policy under a Biden administration might look like by focusing on China and the Indo-Pacific—the two pivotal issues that frame US policy and shape US strategy towards the region—and considering possible priorities, options, and approaches, as well as opportunities and constraints. We essentially make three key arguments. First, structural and political factors will ensure that, even if he wins, a Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. White House will not deviate considerably from the current hard line on China. This is not to say there will be no room for cooperation: rather, it is to stress that though opportunities to work with China will be pursued, this will do little to tamp down the present tough tone and tempo on key issues. Second, although a Biden administration will pursue a more multilateral approach to engagement in the Indo-Pacific, and this will be welcomed by many regional states, Washington needs to understand that regional dynamics have themselves undergone a transformation in recent years, in the sense that while American leadership on a range of issues will still be encouraged, the era of US primacy has passed. Finally, notwithstanding how thoughtful or carefully calibrated the Asia policy of a Biden administration may be, it will be held hostage by the hyper-polarized domestic politics that bedevils America today.
Principles of a Biden administration foreign policy
Few presidential candidates can claim the same breadth of foreign policy experience that Joe Biden possesses. The two-term vice-president and senator of over four decades—during which he spent three sitting on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—has been a long-time fixture in foreign policy circles in the US. In attempting to divine a Biden administration policy towards Asia, it is tempting to turn to the years of the “pivot to Asia” associated with Barack Obama, who deputized Biden, as a point of departure. While vice-presidents are seldom instrumental in the formulation of foreign policy in the US, Biden played an important role in the case of the Obama administration by dint of his personal relationship with the president. Concomitantly, during his term as vice-president, Biden had occasion to meet with numerous regional leaders, including then Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping, who he has met numerous times (eight times alone between 2011 and 2012).1
Many expect a Biden administration to hit the ground running with an invigorated Washington foreign policy establishment that has either been kept out of the current administration, or had voluntarily excluded themselves from being a part of. A sort of dynamism is to be expected, that will be funnelled by the idea that things can finally be kept in order after four years of what seems to be an erratic foreign policy decision-making process that is, no less, subjected to the whims of the current president. Biden’s informal foreign policy team is also noticeably large, as it expresses the former vice-president’s inclination to seek a broad range of views, including those of his progressive counterparts.2 This suggests that his administration is likely to pursue a more deliberate and consultative policy approach should he come to power. Noticeably too, if the present advisory team is any measure, it would also include many who served in the Obama administration.
One of Biden’s principal priorities vis-à-vis foreign policy looks to be the task of reviving multilateralism. There has been a common overtone throughout the Democratic primaries on the need for America to restore its alliances that have atrophied under the “America First” agenda of the Trump administration. In a recent Foreign Affairs article titled “Why America Must Lead Again,” Biden described his plan to reclaim America’s reputation as global leader, and to rebuild confidence in its relationships abroad.3 Notably, in a signal of another likely foreign policy priority, Biden also pledged to organize and host a global “Summit for Democracy” within the first year of his presidency, which would bring together democracies from across the globe to forge a common agenda on shared democratic values.4
Alongside this return to multilateralism, there is a renewed sense of urgency towards the need to strengthen international multilateral mechanisms so as to create more equitable and sustainable systems in order to address the shortcomings and blind spots that have imperilled the “liberal international order” even before the Trump administration came to power. International institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for example, require urgent updating and reform if the global rules-based system is to be strengthened. While the Trump administration doubtless has some legitimate cause to criticize international institutions in defense of American interests, its solution has been to throw the baby out with the bathwater by withdrawing from or withholding support to a host of organizations and initiatives. The Biden campaign team has already signalled that most—if not all—of these decisions would be reversed if they came to power.
It would be reasonable to expect that the foreign policy of a Biden administration will look less aggressive and truculent compared to that of the Trump administration. The Biden campaign has articulated clearly its aim to “place the United States at the head of the table” not by the “example of power,” but by “the power of our example.”5 This is a necessary task, but it will not be easy given the present challenges confronting the polity. A Biden administration will find itself having to grapple with a long list of national priorities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, its ensuing economic fallout, and the ongoing civil unrest in the country that threatens not only to further erode American power, but more so its credibility and influence globally. A national debt of $25 trillion, the largest since World War II, will have to precipitate a rethink of policy priorities and accompanying budget allocations.
How should Asia understand these principles that will likely frame the foreign policy of a Biden administration in relation to the region? The prospect of a reinvigoration of American participation in multilateralism, and attendant attention to institution building and consolidation, will likely be applauded and welcome among its friends and partners in Asia. Having said that, expectations should be moderated with a serious dose of realism. Three points bear amplification in this regard.
First, regardless of who sits in the next White House, the effort to commit time and resources to the region will be imperiled by the more pressing need to focus attention on priorities at home. Indeed, domestic distractions have always threatened to erode American commitments to the region.6 This cautionary note is sobering but necessary precisely because by embracing multilateralism, Washington will invariably raise expectations on the part of its regional partners for greater American commitment. Whether Biden will have the bandwidth and resources at his disposal to see these through will be watched carefully.
Second, following on from the previous point, given the nationalist chord the Trump administration has struck, regional countries must be prepared to accept that even if Biden pursues a more balanced and calibrated approach, it will not be “business as usual”; that is to say, if Biden is to win his upcoming presidential bid, as far as foreign policy is concerned, he cannot simply disregard the nationalist mood on the ground, which has been stoked against the foreign policy commitments of previous administrations. Conversely, there is an even more alarming prospect, as the Trump administration has already arguably demonstrated. Just as a more nationalistic approach to foreign policy might occasion a reduction in commitments overseas, it would also precipitate destabilizing foreign ventures. Domestic imperatives could well precipitate foreign policy adventurism designed to divert attention away from the difficulties back home. Already, this has been happening to some extent in US relations with China, where the move by the Trump administration to blame China for the bilateral trade deficit and coronavirus pandemic has distracted from the inability of his own administration to improve industrial productivity or craft a coherent, scientifically grounded response to the public health crisis. The fact that this “blame game” has accelerated the already alarming decline of Sino-US relations all but reinforces the view on how domestic political considerations can have—and have had—a deleterious effect on regional stability. The foreign policy of the next administration will thence have to carefully consider the interplay between sentiments at home and commitments abroad.
Third, Biden must also realize that what will greet US efforts to re-engage the region will not be “business as usual” either. In part precipitated by the unpredictability surrounding the manner in which Donald Trump has conducted Asia policy (cases in point: taking Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen’s call in December 2016 and initiating a summit dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018) but also the uncertainties caused by severely deteriorating Sino-US relations, regional states are necessarily taking a broader view of their individual as well as collective interests, and diversifying their partnerships so as to not be over-reliant on any single major power. The net effect of this is a regional security and economic landscape that is increasingly multipolar in nature, defined by complex and intersecting dynamics. Looking ahead, Washington should factor in this new geopolitical reality in how it assesses its role and place in the region, as well as how it sees the region responding to its overtures. Simply put, the erosion of American credibility in the region during the Trump years has catalyzed efforts by regional states to reshape regionalism away from traditional assumptions of American predominance.
Having laid out what would be the core principles of US foreign policy in the event of a Biden administration, this article now proceeds to consider how they would play out in the two arenas that will continue to define American interests in the region in the coming years: China and the Indo-Pacific.
Addressing the China challenge
There is no gainsaying that Sino-US relationship will remain the most important bilateral relationship in international affairs in the foreseeable future. It will set the tone for the world of tomorrow in many ways, from traditional spheres of competition and cooperation such as global trade and disarmament regimes to the new domains of digital and cyber space. It follows then, that the policy of the next US administration towards China will be of significant consequence.
Soon after assuming office, the Trump administration dialed up pressure on China in an effort to hold it accountable to international standards of trade and commercial practice and to push back when it was deemed to be disregarding international rules and norms. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss with granularity the suite of issues that set both powers at loggerheads. These have received more than ample coverage elsewhere. Suffice it to say, tensions between the two powers have been on a dizzying rise, with Sino-US confrontation rearing its head across a range of issues from trade and technology to Taiwan and the South China Sea, driving bilateral relations down a precariously rocky path. Compounding matters, public opinion of China has been on a steady decline in the US. A survey undertaken by Pew Research Center in July this year found that nearly 73 percent of Americans now have an unfavorable view of China. This is an increase of 25 percentage points since Trump was sworn into office in January 2017. Should Trump retain power, it is likely that this steady drumbeat of pressure on China will continue across a host of issues, enabled by a strong bipartisan consensus that America must continue to “get tough” on China, which is now seen as the greatest competitor for the US.
Clearly cognizant of this present mood, Joe Biden has staked a hard-line position on China in his campaign. Last year, Biden argued that “if China has its way, it will keep robbing the U.S. of our technology and intellectual property, or forcing American companies to give it away in order to do business in China.”7 In his Foreign Affairs article, Biden further averred that “China is playing the long game by extending its global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in the technologies of the future,” and that the US “does need to get tough with China.”8 True to Democrat tradition, Biden took special aim at the human rights record of the Chinese government in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. During the South Carolina Democratic debate this February, Biden called Xi Jinping a “thug”—a term he also used for Kim Jong-un—for sanctioning the re-education camps in Xinjiang and the crackdown on Hong Kong.9 Following China’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong, Biden vowed to ban US companies from supporting the Chinese surveillance state and threatened to “impose swift economic sanctions” on China if elected.10
The foreign policy advisory team in the Biden campaign provides a wider aperture on likely policy on China should their candidate come to power.11 Senior advisors Ely Ratner, who served directly under Biden when the latter was vice-president, and Kurt Campbell, architect of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” policy, conceded that the US “had underestimated just how simultaneously insecure and ambitious China’s leadership really was.”12 This observation was made in 2018. Last January, Ratner testified in Congress that China is aiming “to make the world safe for authoritarianism.”13 Jake Sullivan, another senior advisor to Biden, cautioned this February that the economic strength of China surpasses that of the Soviet Union during the heights of the Cold War rivalry.14 He again warned in May that there were signs China is “displaying a superpower’s ambition” to displace US global leadership, and that these signs are “unmistakable” and “ubiquitous.”15 Tony Blinken further accented these views by venturing that “the status quo was really not sustainable particularly when it comes to China’s commercial and economic practices (and) the lack of reciprocity in the relationships.”16 Susan Rice, a possible candidate for secretary of state in a Biden administration, denounced Beijing’s “egregious human rights abuses” in Xinjiang and Hong Kong in an August interview.17
Though the usual gripes about China—trade theft, election interference, human rights violations—were conspicuously absent in Biden’s acceptance speech at his nomination, it would be foolish to conclude then that the Democrat camp has merely been playing to the gallery with its sabre rattling.18 Given the hardening of American views towards China across the political spectrum, Biden will have to continue this hawkish approach should he win the presidency. Be that as it may, how a Biden administration might go about attempting to effect change in Chinese behavior would likely differ from the modus operandi of the Trump administration.
Unlike the unilateralism of the Trump administration, a Biden administration will pursue a multilateral approach involving partners and international institutions to confront Beijing when it is deemed to be out of step with widely accepted international norms. This is evident from the Democratic Party platform, which signalled unequivocally its intention to “be clear, strong, and consistent in pushing back where we have profound economic, security, and human rights concerns about the actions of China’s government,” especially by rallying “friends and allies” to counter China, instead of “resorting to self-defeating, unilateral tariff wars or falling into the trap of a new Cold War.”19 Notably, this prospect of a more multilateral approach in concert with friends and allies has already catalyzed consternation in China, where assessments are that a less confrontational but more predictable US China policy that is pursued in tandem with others may work against the long-term interests of Beijing.20 Similarly, on the technology front, Biden has pledged that he will prohibit US technology companies from “abetting repression and supporting the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state.” This suggests continuity—rather than disruption—in its current stance towards technological competition with China. The case mounted against Chinese technology companies like Huawei remains compelling given that the contention lies mainly with China’s national security law, which requires Chinese firms and citizens to provide data when requested in compliance with the country’s intelligence services.21 There are also common concerns on Chinese theft of US intellectual property, an issue Biden claims has gotten worse under the Trump administration after an initial decline in 2015, when a deal was struck between the two countries against abetting cyber-theft. At the same time, since the WTO has recently ruled unfavourably against the US for its tariffs against China, a Biden administration that is seeking to restore a multilateral order will have to consider gradually easing tariffs against the Chinese so as to demonstrate Washington’s own commitments to this international rules-based order, even if it means biding their time to bring Beijing to acquiesce on trade regulations or technology governance.
Another suite of issues that will set a Biden administration at odds with Beijing surrounds democracy and human rights. Specific to China, Biden has built a campaign promise to tackle human rights violations, promising in particular to take “stronger steps to prevent imports from forced labor” in Xinjiang. He has also vowed to impose sanctions on China for its human rights violations in Tibet and Hong Kong. Political analysts note that Biden’s team now uses the term “free world” more often than “a liberal international order,” as Democrats recognise growing challenges from authoritarian regimes to democracies across the globe.22 As an expression of intent, Biden has vowed to host a summit of democracies in his first year “to put strengthening democracy back on the global stage.”23 For a Biden administration, this effort to rally democracies will further bolster multilateral efforts to meet the China challenge, with the logic being that uniting democracies to pressure China would be “a hell of a lot better” than just the US fighting a trade war with China on its own.24
To be sure, Democrat administrations have always set great store by the themes of democratization and human rights. In fact, this preoccupation with identifying and condemning human abuses in China has been a constant drumbeat not only of previous Democrat presidencies, but also Republican ones (including the Trump administration), albeit to a lesser degree. Indeed, whoever comes to power in the White House must by definition be a standard bearer of opposition to human rights abuses, simply by dint of how this agenda is etched deep in the American psyche. That being said, Washington should also be aware that the American narrative on democracy and human rights, and more so its muscular advocacy of these issues, has seldom won it unequivocal praise and support in Asia. The point to stress is that in their robust championing of democratization and human rights, the leadership of America should take care not to undermine larger strategic imperatives on which their own national interests turn.
While there will possibly be a great deal of congruence in the tone and tempo on China policy between the Trump and presumptive Biden administrations, the Biden team has taken great pains to draw some distinctions. Two points are instructive in this regard. First, according to Biden’s advisors, the China policy they outline is not based on punitive measures against Beijing, even if it appears so at first glance. Rather, it is predicated on the restoration of US strength and influence. This was described by Jake Sullivan, who counseled that the US “should put less focus on trying to slow China down and more emphasis on trying to run faster ourselves.”25 Indeed, the argument that “foreign policy begins at home” resonates even more today, in the wake of the dark cloud of hyper-polarization that hangs over the US. Second, although a Biden administration is prepared to push back firmly against Chinese bellicosity, there is also a sense that the US will need to review and refresh its China policy in order to strike a balance between the polarities of engagement and the current administration’s narrowly adversarial stance towards China. The result of this could be a far more compartmentalised and calibrated China strategy that allows the US to draw a firm line across trade and national security issues, yet leaving room for collaboration on shared concerns such as those relating to global health and climate change challenges.
The issue of Taiwan
A corollary to China policy would be US relations with Taiwan. A tough approach towards China does not automatically translate to unequivocal support of Taiwan. Throughout his career, Joe Biden has been known to be a staunch promoter of US strategic ambiguity on the Taiwan issue. This was evident from his rebuke of George W. Bush for saying the US would do “whatever it took” to assist the island if it were attacked by China.26 Instead, Biden stressed that it was prudent to “keep mum about the circumstances in which we might, or might not, intervene in a war across the Taiwan Strait.”27 Wary of presidential overreach on the issue, Biden seems to accept that Congress would have a crucial part to play in any decision in response to a Chinese attack on the island.28 The preference for strategic ambiguity reverberates within his circle of foreign policy advisors. Campbell and Sullivan have asserted that Taiwan’s prosperity and democracy can be maintained “in the ambiguous space” between the US and China.29 Meanwhile, Ratner described solidarity with Taiwan as more of “an effort to build coalitions of the willing” rather than “a strict strategic alignment.”30 Blinken reaffirmed the utility if not effectiveness of strategic ambiguity, which he hoped to “get back.”31 These views speak to the traditionally fraught relationship between Taiwan and Democrat political leadership in the US: the island sees the latter as being too soft on China, whereas the Democrats nurse entrapment fears when dealing with the former.
This circumspection has prompted assessments that a Biden administration will take care not to overplay commitments to Taiwan.32 That said, Biden was the first among the Democratic presidential hopefuls to congratulate Tsai Ing-wen on her reelection in January, and later, on the occasion of her inauguration in May.33 In June, Michele Flournoy, a potential candidate for the post of defense secretary, testified that Congress should continue to “support Taiwan’s efforts to shore up its ability to deter and defend against Chinese coercion and aggression,” and that the US should consider Taiwan “as an alternative to mainland China for parts of its supply chains.”34 Further, in August, Blinken expressed that in the aftermath of the situation in Hong Kong, an emboldened China may attempt to extend its reach to Taiwan next, and this would require Biden to “step up defenses of Taiwan’s democracy by exposing Beijing’s efforts to interfere.”35 More recently, the Democrat Party platform omitted the words “one China” from its policy for the first time in 20 years, leading some to interpret it—prematurely and mistakenly—as some sort of tacit recognition of Taiwanese sovereignty.36 Indeed, it is important to note that, in all probability, a Biden administration would only take escalatory measures if Beijing moves first to change the status quo in Taiwan.
Pivoting to the Indo-Pacific?
The cornerstone of Trump administration policy in Asia has been its Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. To be sure, the Obama-era “pivot to Asia” had already highlighted the strategic importance of the Indian and Pacific oceans, connecting the two to outline plans for an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor in 2013. Yet compared to the pivot, the FOIP strategy differs in at least two ways.
First, in its current form, the FOIP strategy is overwhelmingly focused on defense and security concerns, particularly defense cooperation and military interoperability. Areas like trade and governance remain comparatively underdeveloped. The Department of State’s 32-page document outlining its FOIP vision for example, only features one page on good governance.37 At any rate, economic engagement under the FOIP banner would set it at odds with the “America First” slogan of Donald Trump. So far, there has been no attempt to outline a regional trade strategy after Trump walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement either. Rather, the current administration has expressed its preference for bilateral trade deals.
Second, the FOIP strategy does exactly what the Obama-era pivot tried to avoid: that is, to cast light on the reorientation of US policy towards China through the Indo-Pacific. Under the FOIP, the US sought to promote a concept of the Indo-Pacific as a “networked region,” referring to a coalescence of like-minded states working together “to support the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”38 While that has not quite taken shape in its entirety, the reinvigoration of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad), although distinct from the FOIP, does arguably bring together a group of major democracies in the region, and has been viewed as largely motivated by the perceived need to respond to the rise of China. Unlike the pivot, the FOIP essentially casts China—together with North Korea and Russia—as a hostile threat to the regional security infrastructure and the international rules-based order.39 While the National Security Strategy claims that the FOIP “excludes no nation,” the same document also defines China as a “revisionist power,” portraying it to be an ideological threat in almost existential terms.40 In its recently published China strategy, the White House further claims that the Chinese Communist Party is promoting globally “a value proposition” that challenges the bedrock of fundamental “American” values.41 In essence, the narrative and proposition of the American FOIP are deeply mired in geopolitical undercurrents.
Compared to present efforts to cast Sino-US rivalry narrowly in zero-sum terms, a Biden administration may prefer to broaden and refashion the FOIP strategy so as to make it more palatable for friends and allies, many of whom are alarmed by the current narrative that barely veils its explicit targeting of China, to buy in. Of course, that would have to come with a reassessment of its agenda. In terms of trade at least, a Biden administration may consider a renegotiation of a regional trade deal in the Indo-Pacific that would respond to economic challenges posed by China and present alternatives to Chinese-led trade and economic efforts, yet also carefully calibrated to appease anti-trade wings in Washington. This is doubtless a formidable task given the political situation back home, yet it is nevertheless necessary to secure key American economic and political interests in the region. This is not to suggest that the FOIP strategy is a failure. Far from it. Indeed, notwithstanding Donald Trump’s efforts to position his policies as quintessentially “anti-Obama,” the FOIP strategy, like the pivot before it, confirms the continuity of American presence and engagement in the region. With China looming in the foreground of the regional strategic landscape, this trajectory is likely to remain, irrespective of the election outcome.
The Indo-Pacific is a region that the US must know it cannot afford to lose focus on. The challenge is how to sustain its presence, and to sell it back home. Strategically, the US has suggested that it is open to a “NATO-like” alliance in the region, despite the fact that the present administration has been scathing in its criticism of NATO itself. Speaking at a U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum in August, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun referred to the lack of a “strong multilateral structure” in the Indo-Pacific to point at the possibility of further formalizing the Quad at some point.42 To be sure, cooperation among Quad member states has been gaining strategic heft in recent months. In September, India and Japan signed a key military logistics pact that creates a framework for closer bilateral cooperation, while allowing the two countries to share maritime bases and facilities for repair and resupply. At its annual Australia-U.S. Ministerial (AUSMIN) meeting, the other two Quad members also drummed up bilateral defense cooperation framed towards the Indo-Pacific. Further to that, if the US FOIP strategy is contingent on the buy-in and support of like-minded democracies, the Biden administration may be tempted to see the Quad as a viable institutional expression of such an effort.
That being said, the fact that, in its present form, the US position on and approach to both the FOIP and the Quad appears to be informed predominantly by its strategic rivalry with China has triggered varying degrees of apprehension on the part of regional states, especially those that are careful not to be identified with anything resembling a containment strategy. Should the Biden administration seek to further these platforms as part of its Asia strategy and in a way that will be embraced by regional states, it is imperative that they derive a logic that is detached from the preoccupation with China, focusing on cooperative security, regional institution building, trade, and provision of infrastructure alternatives rather than the present preoccupation with defence and security issues.
ASEAN and Southeast Asia
As president, Donald Trump has paid comparatively little attention to the Southeast Asia region. With the exception of a 2017 trip to the region that was widely covered, he has been content to dispatch others in his stead to ASEAN summits.43 In the meantime, he has left several ambassadorial positions in Southeast Asia unfilled.
The Biden campaign has thus far been silent on ASEAN and Southeast Asia. This suggests something of the level of priority—or lack thereof—that the region might be accorded if he were to take office. That being said, should a Biden administration return the US to a more predictable and orthodox form of foreign policy, as most analysts predict, there will still be some positive developments at least in terms of the optics. For starters, ambassadorial positions will begin to be filled. Second, Biden would in all probability take a leaf out of the Obama playbook and make a more concerted effort to participate in regional summitry. In a region where diplomatic culture is predicated foremost on presence at the table, this cannot be overstated. Equally consequential, this would give the ASEAN-led meetings more teeth, especially on matters pertaining to shared interests such as international law and freedom of navigation, while also providing a definitive signal of the shift from unilateralism back to multilateralism. It is worth noting too, that when the Trump administration called out Chinese behavior on intellectual property, market access, and the South China Sea, this was for the most part tacitly welcomed in many Southeast Asian capitals especially given prevailing views on how the Obama administration failed to be more decisive as the balance of power and influence in the region shifted. A presumptive Biden presidency will be well-advised to take a clear-eyed look not only at what Obama promised but failed to achieve (and why), but also, at setting aside its fundamental misgivings and opposition towards what the Trump administration has managed to achieve.
Yet there is, simultaneously, also plausible cause for consternation, especially for Southeast Asian states that wish to avoid being drawn into the unfolding script of great power rivalry. Should a Biden administration demand ASEAN to take a firmer stand on issues like human rights, the Belt and Road Initiative, or 5G, or perhaps to be more accommodating and proactive in hosting US assets, or expect them to step up and contribute to the security burden especially in the South China Sea, this would place regional states in an inconvenient position vis-à-vis their own strategic interests.44
While American friends in Europe are, for the most part, looking forward to a Biden administration, the mood in Asia is less clear.45 No doubt, the unpredictability attributed to Trump administration decision-making over the last four years has prompted no small measure of concern and apprehension in the region for American objectives and intentions, and how Washington may or may not seek to direct Asia policy towards those ends. Yet this unpredictability also precipitated necessary—and to some extent, overdue—reconfiguration of regional dynamics, which in turn gave rise to the CPTPP, RCEP, and the deepening of various bilateral and minilateral security, economic, and diplomatic initiatives among regional states. In this respect, although the US remains a crucial and welcome power, many regional states are reconsidering hitherto traditional views on American primacy and its place and practice in the region.
Expectations are that a robust posture on China should be expected in the event of a Biden administration. Even so, US policy towards what is increasingly being seen as a superpower rival should be carefully calibrated. While room for maneuver may, to some extent, be constrained by policy positions already cast in stone by the Trump administration, a Biden administration will have to devise a more sustainable and long-term approach to pressure China to moderate its behavior on fundamental industrial and market access policies without risking regional stability.
In terms of the larger canvass of American foreign policy however, the fact is that ultimately, even in the event of a Biden victory in the November elections, any prospect of a more robust and predictable policy towards Asia could well be determined by, and dependent on, a degree of domestic political consensus in the US that today is all but elusive. Indeed, the struggle for Congress to rally and work together in a bicameral fashion even in the context of an existential COVID-19 crisis highlights with distressing certitude the gulf between the aisles in Washington.46 By the same token, the fact that all indicators presently point to possibly the most acrimonious presidential election in recent memory cannot but raise doubts about the future of US foreign policy in the region.
1. Edward Wong, Michael Crowley, and Ana Swanson, “Joe Biden’s China Journey,” The New York Times, September 6, 2020.
2. “Inside the massive foreign-policy team advising Biden’s campaign,” Foreign Policy, July 2020,
3. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Why America must lead again: Rescuing US foreign policy after Trump,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020.
4. Senator Kamala Harris, his running mate, also stressed the importance of revitalizing US alliances around the world during her own earlier presidential bid.
6. See Joseph Chinyong Liow, Ambivalent Engagement: The U.S. and Southeast Asian Security After the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2017).
7. Remarks by Joe Biden made in New York City, July 11, 2019,
8. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Why America must lead again.”
9. Full transcript of Joe Biden’s South Carolina Democratic Debate, CBS News, February 25, 2020.
10. Trevor Hunnicutt “Biden says new China national security law a ‘death blow,’ weighs sanctions,” Reuters, July 2, 2020.
11. The fact that a significant number of them were involved in the Obama administration, and were hence architects of the engagement policy with Beijing, reinforces the view that there has indeed been something of a tectonic shift in perceptions of and discussions on China in Washington circles.
12. Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner, “The China reckoning: How Beijing defied American expectations,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2018,
13. Transcript: “Hearing to receive testimony on China and Russia,” Committee of Armed Services, January 29, 2019,
14. Jennifer Harris & Jake Sullivan, “America needs a new economic philosophy. Foreign experts can help,” Foreign Policy, February 7, 2020,
15. Hal Brands & Jake Sullivan, “China has two paths to global domination,” Foreign Policy, May 22, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/22/china-superpower-two-paths-global-domination-cold-war/
16. Transcript: “Dialogues on American Foreign Policy and World Affairs: A Conversation with Former Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken,” Hudson Institute, July 9, 2020,
17. Transcript: “Susan Rice is on Biden’s short list to be his running mate,” National Public Radio, August 4, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/08/04/898853269/susan-rice-is-on-bidens-shor-list-to-be-his-running-mate
18. Full text: Joe Biden’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, ABCNews, August 20, 2020,
19. Democratic Party Platform, Democratic National Convention, July 31, 2020 ,
20. 陈定定, “ 拜登若胜选上台 对华政策可能的三个转变,” Sina News, July 14, 2020.
21. Having said that, it should be noted US federal law contains similar provisions. The Clarifying Lawful Use of Overseas Data or Cloud Act allows the state to compel American technology companies via subpoena or warrant to divulge information contained on their servers. Also, Huawei has clarified that the National Security Law does not oblige Chinese technology companies to share information that had been obtained abroad. Interview with a senior Huawei official, Singapore, September 18, 2019.
22. Thomas Wright, “The quiet reformation of Biden’s foreign policy,” Brookings, March 20, 2020,
23. Sydney Ember and Katie Glueck, “Biden, in foreign policy speech, castigates Trump and urges global diplomacy,” The New York Times, July 11, 2019,
24. Michael Martina, “Biden to hammer Trump’s ‘tough talk, weak action’ on China, top adviser says,” Reuters, May 13, 2020,
25. Edward Wong, Michael Crowley, Ana Swanson, “Joe Biden’s China journey,” The New York Times, September 6, 2020,
Jacob M. Schlesinger, “What’s Biden’s new China policy? It looks a lot like Trump’s,” The Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2020,
26. Joseph Bosco, “Where does Biden stand on China and Taiwan?” The Hill, August 25, 2020, https://thehill.com/opinion/international/513392-where-does-biden-stand-on-china-and-taiwan
27. Joseph R. Biden Jr., “Not so deft on Taiwan,” The Washington Post, May 2, 2001,
28. Joseph Bosco, “Where does Biden stand on China and Taiwan?”
29. Kurt M. Campbell and Jake Sullivan, “Competition without catastrophe: How America can both challenge and coexist within China,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2019,
30. “The US-China confrontation is not another cold war, it’s something new,” The Washington Post, July 2, 2020,
31. Transcript “Joe Biden’s foreign policy adviser Antony Blinken on COVID shortfalls, failures in Syria,” CBS News, May 20, 2020,
32. Yang Kuang-shun, “Team Biden’s policies on China and Taiwan,” The Diplomat, July 16, 2020,
35. Michele Flournoy’s testimony before the US-China economic and security review commission, “The Chinese view of strategic competition with the United States,” Westexec Advisors, June 24, 2020, https://westexec.com/michele-flournoy-testifies-before-the-u-s-china-economic-and-security-review-commission-the-chinese-view-of-strategic-competition-with-the-united-states/
David Wainer and Kevin Cirilli, “Containing China starts with fixing alliances, Biden aide says,” Bloomberg, August 1, 2020.
36. Nick Aspinwall, “Taiwan pins hopes on US election winner staying tough on China, Nikkei Asian Review, September 8, 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Asia-Insight/Taiwan-pins-hopes-on-US-election-winner-staying-tough-on-China
37. “A free and open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a shared vision,” U.S. Department of State, November 4, 2019,
38. “DOD working towards networked Indo-Pacific,” U.S. Department of Defense, 31, 2020,
39. “Indo-Pacific strategy report: Preparedness, partnerships, and promoting a networked region,” U.S Department of Defense, June 1, 2019,
40. National Security Strategy of the United States, December 2017,
41. “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” White House, May 2020.
42. “Biegun’s statement at the U.S.-India strategic partnership forum,“ U.S. Department of State, August 31, 2020,
43. He did make separate trips to Singapore and Vietnam, but these were to attend his ill-conceived summits with Kim Jong-un.
44. John Lee, “Beyond 2020: Indo-Pacific strategy under a democrat white house” Hudson Institute, May 4, 2020,
https://www.hudson.orgresearch/16002-beyond-2020-indo-pacific-strategy-under-a-democrat-white-house (https://www.iseas.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/ISEAS_Perspective_2020_33.pdf )
45. YA, “The Virtues of a Confrontational China Strategy,” American Interest, April 10, 2020; James Crabtree, “Biden has a serious credibility problem in Asia,” Foreign Policy, September 10, 2020.
46. Carl Hulse, “Congress was already broken. The coronavirus could make it worse,” The New York Times, July 25, 2020,